On the WaterfrontBy Chuck Kapelke

Lakeside meetings destinations deliver  

Tucked along the tip of a narrow inlet, with soft-sand beaches, gently lapping waves and crystal-blue water, a small coastal town serves as a launching point for jet-skiing, parasailing and scuba diving out to old shipwrecks. Last year, Hollywood producers were reportedly considering using the area to film water sequences for Pirates of the Caribbean 4.

But if you think we’re talking about Barbados, Mexico or Hawaii, guess again. This is Traverse City—“the Caribbean of Michigan”—a town that is farther north than Green Bay, Wis., and that, while often bitterly cold in the winter, is an idyllic waterfront resort at other times of the year.

“People have been coming here for a hundred years or more to just enjoy the water, the open air and the woods,” says Mike Norton, media relations director for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Gradually it transformed from a prototypical, up-north recreation area into something a bit more sophisticated. You have all of the advantages of an oceanfront area without the disadvantages. No sharks, [and] no salt to have to rinse off yourself.”

Traverse City, Mich., is the kind of place where the main airport has a fireplace in the waiting room and there is a grove of cherry trees along the road outside. It is also the only place that Lifeline Youth & Family Services, a social-services organization based in Fort Wayne, Ind., ever considers for its annual Fish with the Pros for Kids fundraiser, a fishing derby for which business owners pay to fish with bass pros.

“The lake is beautiful, and in the fall, seeing those colors shimmer off the water is gorgeous,” says Ann Schaub, Lifeline’s vice president of development, who plans the event. “There are so many things to do, like going to the wineries or the sand dunes, but it’s not so big that people get scattered all over the place.”

Traverse City is a classic example of why lakefront properties tend to make great destinations for meetings: They offer a relaxing, intimate atmosphere where groups tend to stay and play together. They also have ample CVB services available to planners, as well as a range of types of properties. Some may be more camp-like (in movie terms, think Meatballs); some are family-oriented, with a slate of fun activities (think Dirty Dancing); and others are outright deluxe, with every pampering indulgence available (think Dynasty). Regardless of budget, all lakefront properties tap into the mystical calming effects of the lakes themselves. Lakefront destinations are usually:

Family Friendly: If you’re planning a meeting where people are likely to bring their families, a lakeside resort is a no-brainer. Kids will enjoy fishing, skipping stones, building boats, swimming or countless other activities.

Seasonal: While some lake resorts shut down in the winter, others are open year-round, providing opportunities for skiing, snowboarding, ice-fishing, snowshoeing and other cold-weather fun. The shoulder seasons (think wildflowers in the spring and foliage in the fall) are great times to get reduced rates.

Relatively Remote: Just to be clear, we’re not talking about hotels in downtown Chicago overlooking Lake Michigan. Lakefront properties are usually off the beaten path and immersed in nature. This relative remoteness can create transportation challenges for a meeting planner, but the trick is to go with it and have some fun. “We like to make the trip [to and from the destination] part of the experience,” Schaub says.

Ready for Fun: Most lakefront hotels have diverse resources for boating, fishing, sailing, water skiing and other activities; for groups, it is imperative to get outside and on the lake as much as possible. That said, realize that if your program depends too much on being outside, you are at the whim of the weather.

Great for Small Groups: Lakefront destinations are usually best suited for smaller gatherings, as opposed to big conventions, and there are often sufficient on-site services to reduce a planner’s level of involvement. Meals can be casual, with outdoor barbecues, clambakes and lobsterbakes, and there can be live music or karaoke at night, along with beachside bonfires and ’smores—or, if you’re really ambitious, fireworks.

Regional Overview

Following are just a few of the major lake regions and properties across the U.S. and Canada:

Georgia

Known for peach blossoms, dogwoods and bulldogs, Georgia offers the advantage of moderate weather, making year-round golf and lake activities more likely than in, say, northern Michigan. “Our lakes are beautiful,” says Stefanie Paupeck, communications specialist for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Georgia is a year-round destination, so if you go to our lakes at the end of February, there are tons of people out there. And the costs involved in coming out here are lower than other states.”


   Lake Las Vegas Village.

Lake Sidney Lanier, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about an hour from Atlanta, has nearly 700 miles of shoreline, with calm waters that can be used for fishing and other activities. More than 7.5-million people visit the lake every year. Groups can stay at the 1,100-acre Lake Lanier Islands Resort, which has 287 guest rooms, villas and lakehouses. There is also a golf course, a beach and a massive water park—Chattahoochee Rapids—that is home to Georgia’s largest wave pool.

Another option in Georgia is The Ritz-Carlton, Reynolds Plantation, on Lake Oconee, about 75 miles from Atlanta. Based in an area known as Linger Longer for its leisurely pace, the luxury property has 251 guest rooms and suites, as well as golf cottages to go along with 99 holes of golf for a duffer’s delight.

New York

While maybe not the quietest spot for a meeting, Niagara Falls, in upstate New York between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie on the Canadian border, is a unique waterfront destination. No, you can’t jump in the water (seriously, don’t), but the spectacle of 75,000 gallons per second gushing by provides a jaw-dropping backdrop for a meeting. The Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation can spread a group across 1,000 hotel rooms in the area, and the 116,000-square-foot Conference Center Niagara Falls is within walking distance of the falls. Lest you think it’s all about the water, the area has more than 40  wineries, and events can be held at historic sites such as Old Fort Niagara, a 333-year-old fort that sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Ontario.

A more serene option in nearby New York is Lake George, which is nestled in the Adirondack Mountains and nicknamed The Queen of American Lakes.

“Lake George is a lovely little community, but it’s such a part of nature,” says Sharon Biermann, who plans sales meetings for a major pharmaceutical company. “It’s not that wide of a lake, so to have the view of the mountains on the other side and be able to boat up and down gives you a great perspective on the Adirondack area. The benefit of the location and the peacefulness it provides far outweighs any inconvenience of traveling there.”

If the Queen of Lakes has a Queen of Hotels, it is surely the Sagamore, an illustrious resort situated on its own 70-acre island. Originally built in 1883, the 384-room property has about 31,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a 10,080-square-foot ballroom, and the Hermitage, a converted carriage house perfect for an executive retreat.

“We do about three to four buyouts of the hotel per year, and our typical size group is between 50 to 75 rooms on average,” says Kevin Rosa, director of sales and marketing for the Sagamore. “We take advantage of our location being on a lake. We have our own cruise boat, and our premier facility is Shelving Rock Terrace, which has incredible views of the Adirondacks and Lake George.”

Located a bit closer to the retro-neon village of Lake George is the 158-room Georgian Resort & Conference Center, which has meeting space for up to 325 guests, and amenities including a heated swimming pool, 400 feet of private beach, a dock area, an on-site dinner theater, and easy access to outfitters for parasailing, hiking, rafting, skiing, biking and everything else. One of the more unusual and exciting team-building options on Lake George is canoe races. “The Last of the Mohicans inhabited the Adirondacks—and we take our Native American history seriously,” Rosa says. “A local outfitter has 12 gigantic, authentic Native American war canoes that groups can use to do time trials out to a buoy. It gets the group going, and they cheer each other on.”

California

California has hundreds of lakes and reservoirs, although the most well-known meetings destination is shared with Nevada: Lake Tahoe. Located about 60 miles southwest of Reno, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America, and offers an endless bounty of mountain biking, hiking and boat trips in the summer, as well as some of the nation’s best winter ski resorts. (For convenience, we include both Nevada and California properties.)


   The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada.

Tahoe is typically divided into the North Shore and South Shore areas, which are about 30 minutes apart by car. On the North Shore, Incline Village/Crystal Bay is home to the luxurious lakefront Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino, which has 422 guest rooms and 50,000 sq. ft. of meeting and function space.

In the town of Stateline, Nev., on the South Shore, there are dozens of options, including Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, a major casino resort with more than 1,265 guest rooms, and the 400-suite Embassy Suites Lake Tahoe Hotel & Ski Resort, which is on the California side and has a ballroom that can hold up to 440 people and a Garden Atrium for up to 500.
Unique sites for events can be found all around Lake Tahoe, including Thunderbird Lodge, a historic shoreline estate with a three-story waterfall, tunnels with secret passageways and 5,400 sq. ft. of meeting space. Groups can also team up with outfitters including Tahoe Adventure Learning Institute for a ropes course through the mountain trees.

Nevada

Outside of Lake Tahoe, there aren’t a whole lot of lakes in Nevada, but one good option for meetings is Lake Las Vegas, a multiproperty development with hotels, golf courses and mansions, centered around an expansive artificial lake about 30 minutes from Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport. Lake Las Vegas has a small village with cobblestone streets, a floating stage for concerts on the lake, singing gondoliers and the Lady of the Lake yacht for trips on the water.

“You get the advantages of going to Las Vegas, like easy access and affordability, but it’s off The Strip, and it is a great option for families,” says Megan Gage, learning and development coordinator for San Jose, Calif.-based Novellus Systems, who recently planned a two-week corporate training program at Aston Montelago Resort.

Other options for meetings include the new Ravella at Lake Las Vegas, the former Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas, which has extensive meeting space and 314 guest rooms and 35 suites, including 2,400-square-foot Presidential Suites for VIPs; and Loews Lake Las Vegas, a sprawling property with 493 guest rooms and an on-site golf course.

Banff/Lake Louise

One of the most beautiful lakes in North America is Lake Louise, an emerald-blue alpine gem surrounded by towering peaks in Canada’s Banff National Park. This area is home to a world-class ski resort (Lake Louise), as well as the prestigious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, which has 554 guest rooms and 24 meeting rooms and is regularly listed among the world’s best hotels. Another stunning property in this region is Morain Lake Lodge, about 20 minutes from Lake Louise, which overlooks Morain Lake, another strikingly beautiful alpine lake. This property has 33 cabin and lodge guest rooms, as well as a rentable dining room.

Michigan

Michigan is shaped by Lake Michigan on the west and Lake Huron on the east, so lakefront properties abound. “You could do worse than getting out on a Great Lake in August,” says Adam Hinterthuer, who helped plan a gathering for his organization in Traverse City in 2010. “It’s 10 to 15 degrees cooler than inland. I would go to a lake any day of the week over a city. It’s so much prettier.”


   Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, Traverse City, Mich.

Even though it is only accessible by ferry or plane, Mackinac Island, a four square-mile island in Lake Huron, attracts more than 1-million people each year. True to its name, the Grand Hotel is a stately old property with a 660-foot front porch and 385 guest rooms, no two of which are alike. There are even various rooms themed after U.S. presidents and first ladies. Meeting spaces include the Woodfill Conference Center, a unique room with pink and white walls that can be used for banquets of up to 500 guests.

The Grand Traverse Resort, in Acme, just outside of Traverse City, has 600 guest rooms, as well as 86,500 sq. ft. of meeting space, 54 holes of golf (including courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player) and on-site professional development. In addition to the lake, the Traverse City area has 20 golf courses and a burgeoning wine country. “People who come here keep coming back,” says Traverse City CVB’s Norton. “Word of mouth is one of our strongest recruiters for meetings.”

Minnesota

Not surprisingly, the Land of 10,000 Lakes has at least one or two lakeside properties for groups, many of which are focused on fishing, fishing and more fishing. For example, Ballard’s Resort, located on Lake of the Woods near the Canadian border, has its own bus called the Walleye Connection to take anglers out to where they’re biting.

Located about 140 miles northwest of Minneapolis, Gull Lake is home to the Grand View Lodge, which traces its roots back to 1919. Located on 750 acres of pine forest with its own sand beach, championship golf course and spa, the property has 25,000 sq. ft. of space of events for up to 500.

Wisconsin

Another great Midwestern state for lakes, Wisconsin is home to Lake Geneva, a narrow, nine-mile-long lake about an hour from Milwaukee and 90 minutes from Chicago.
“This is a magnificent lake, and it’s surrounded by rural countryside, but it’s also got some of the most sophisticated properties in the Midwest,” says George Hennerley, executive vice president of the Lake Geneva Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have had groups as big as 3,000 that take over the whole area.”

Attractions in the Lake Geneva area include golf, boat tours of the mansions that line the shores, the “Dancing Horses” show and the largest refracting telescope in the world. “It’s a big dome, and you can make arrangements to have events or meetings there,” says Hennerley.

The upscale Grand Geneva Resort & Spa has 355 guest rooms, 62,000 sq. ft. of event space, two championship golf courses, tennis and swimming. The Abbey Resort has 334 guest rooms, as well as two-bedroom condos and 40,000 sq. ft. of flexible indoor and outdoor function space. And The Lodge at Geneva Ridge (formerly Interlaken) has 140 guest rooms and six suites, 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and on-site team building.

“A group will be most successful if they mix business with pleasure and use outdoor activities like golf, hiking and biking, coupled with the business meeting,” says Hennerley. “We’ve been doing this a long time. There’s never a bad time to come here.”

Chuck Kapelke is our “View from Vegas” columnist and has written for a number of magazines, including Rolling Stone, San Francisco and Continental, as well as Let’s Go guidebooks.